In January 2017, Clatsop County commissioners voted 3-2 to opt out of the $1 billion class-action timber lawsuit against the state because it did not align with their values of balanced forest management.
Clatsop forests make up nearly one-quarter of the state-run forestlands involved in the lawsuit, and Clatsop was notably the only county eligible not to join the legal challenge.
Other taxing districts in the county that stayed in the lawsuit stand to receive $176 million for past damages and $109 million for future damages after a Linn County jury found in favor of the counties.
While Clatsop County leaders have so far declined to comment on the verdict, the decision to opt out is under scrutiny.
At the time, commissioners said they “support integrated and balanced management of state forests as found in the ‘greatest permanent value’ rule adopted by the Board of Forestry in 1998.”
The rule defined “greatest permanent value” as a balance between timber harvesting and preserving clean drinking water, recreation and wildlife habitat.
However, jurors found that the state’s rule violated an 80-year-old agreement with the counties by limiting logging in state forests, thus limiting their revenue. The state intends to appeal.
“The state has adopted an administrative rule that defines ‘greatest permanent value’ that prioritizes other uses with timber and timber harvesting and they did that unilaterally without the counties’ input,” said Blair Henningsgaard, an Astoria attorney who represents the Port of Astoria and the Seaside and Jewell school districts on the issue.
Two major facets of the lawsuit are defining “greatest permanent value” and counties protecting their say in how forests are managed.
County counsels are concerned about the future of contracts between the state and counties, Clatsop County Counsel Heather Reynolds said. For that reason, some were concerned if their counties did participate in the lawsuit and lost it would create a precedent that the state can override such contracts.
But others have questioned why Clatsop County was the only county to opt out.
“So why wouldn’t Clatsop County take an interest in it? And if their voice is the biggest and they say, ‘No, we like what’s going on,’ they would have a voice in saying that. But by sitting out on the sidelines, they don’t have that voice,” Henningsgaard said.
Prior to the commission’s vote, Scott Lee, the chairman at the time, said: “Some have spoken of our need to have a ‘seat at the table’ because then our voice would be heard. But this makes little sense to me. Clatsop County’s values are not the values expressed in the lawsuit. Why would we join a lawsuit that demands maximum timber harvest over all other interests if we don’t support that position?”
Lee joined Commissioner Sarah Nebeker and Commissioner Kathleen Sullivan in the vote to opt out. Commissioner Lianne Thompson and Commissioner Lisa Clement opposed the move. Clement, like Lee, chose not to run for reelection last year.
Commissioners received overwhelming public comment asking them to opt out of the lawsuit. Their decision was made in the Judge Guy Boyington Building, named in honor of the man behind the very contract with the state being litigated.
During the Great Depression, instead of paying taxes on land that was harvested, private timber companies turned the land over to the counties to deal with after it was logged.
Counties did not have the resources to manage the land and the state didn’t have a forestry department at the time.
In 1939, the state and counties came to an agreement, initiated by Boyington, to consolidate the foreclosed lands under public ownership to restore timber production and “to secure the greatest permanent value” and share the revenue with the counties.
“I’ve always called it forest trust lands ... now they call them ‘state forests,’” Henningsgaard said. “But I think it’s really clear that the original transfers from the county to the state were simply the state would keep enough money to operate its forestry department and everything else goes to the counties.
“And that was really good for the state when they didn’t have a forestry department. And all of a sudden they had this money that they could fund a forestry department and now they want to make parks and trails ... and there’s so much money there that they want to just take it. And year by year they just kind of chip away at the concept of the whole deal.”
Henningsgaard believes many people in urban areas see the forest trust lands as places to preserve trees and provide recreation, not for logging on behalf of the counties.
“I don’t think the people in Salem particularly understand or care about people outside of Portland and Salem. You can say that’s true because that’s where all the people live, but we’re people, too, out here,” he said.